This is told from the viewpoint of the highway patrolman who has to deal with his brother constantly getting in trouble with the law.
Springsteen recorded this in one take on a 4-track tape deck. Intended as a demo for the band to work with, he decided that this and the other songs he recorded sounded best as they were and Nebraska became a solo album.
Johnny Cash used this to open his 1983 album Johnny 99. The album was named after another Springsteen song that Cash also covered.
This song was the basis for the 1991 Sean Penn move The Indian Runner.
A version with The Seeger Sessions Band that Springsteen performed on his "American Land" tour appeared on this 2007 album The Sessions Band: Live in Dublin
Bertrand - Paris, France
The lyric "When the band played Night of the Johnstown Flood" concerns a flood that engulfed the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania on the night of May 21, 1889. It was caused by a ferocious storm that broke down the South Fork Dam, 15 miles upstream. 20 million tons of water engulfed the town and 2,000 lives were lost. Over the years several songs have been written about the flood and it is thought that Springsteen is most likely referring to Mack Moody's 1963 version of the traditional folk song "Jonestown Flood."
The second line of the song identifies Sargent Joe Roberts as acting out of "Perrineville barracks number 8." At least, most people have assumed it was "Perrineville," but that doesn't make any sense. Perrineville is a town in New Jersey, Springsteen's home state, but the story in "Highway Patrolman" takes place in Michigan. So, it's much more likely that the second line is talking about Perronville, an unincorporated community in Harris Township, Monominee County, Michigan.
Many people have misidentified the song as talking about a Perrineville, Ohio, but no such town exists. This misunderstanding likely results from the song's line about Joe's brother Frank driving a "Buick with Ohio plates," but this too is confusing things because the whole point of that line is to say that it's a stolen car from another state--in this case, the state of Ohio, which borders Michigan.